great northern railway

I never had the opportunity to get to know my Grandpa Allen Luther Spencer, because he passed away before my parents were married, and 4½ years before I was born. Life was not always easy for my grandfather. His first marriage ended in divorce, following the death of his daughter, Dorothy, which was quickly followed by the birth of his son, Norman. The loss of a child can be so devastating, that many people never recover, and many marriages fail. It was a dark time for him, until he met my grandmother.

After their marriage and four more children, Laura in 1912, Bill in 1922, Allen (my dad) in 1924, and Ruth in 1925, it looked like his life was on the right track again. Of course, like many other people, this good period was followed by the Great Depression. Thankfully, my grandfather was a carpenter (mostly for the Great Northern Railway), and as near as I can tell, had a job throughout the Great Depression. Still, times were tough, and I’m sure the wages were not what a family of six really needed to live. Most people struggled during the Great Depression.

My grandfather was a product of his circumstances, and the times he lived in, and the two things together created a stressful life for him and his second family. Much more was expected of the two older children, and feelings were raw at times. The younger two children really never remember his being so hard on them. Grandpa had specific ideas of things the children should learn and do. All of the children learned to play the violin and some learned the guitar. My Aunt Laura never really liked learning to play the violin, but the rest of the children did…or at least they did later. Grandpa Spencer may not have been an easy teacher, or maybe it’s just hard to learn from your dad.

No matter what kind of a man my grandfather was, and whether circumstances led to his troubles, his children loved him very much. Like any family, kids and parents “lock horns” sometimes. That doesn’t mean you don’t love them. When my grandfather was dying, my dad drove from Casper, Wyoming to Superior, Wisconsin, 980 miles, in 17 hours. That might not seem like a big deal these days, but cars didn’t do what they can do now, and speeds were different then too. Needless to say, my dad made it home to see his dad before he passed away, and he was always thankful that he made the trip, and always thankful that he saw his dad one more time. I only wish I could have met him, and gotten to know him too. I feel like I missed out, on my grandfather and my Grandma Spencer, who passed away when I was 2½ months old. Happy birthday in Heaven Grandpa Spencer. I look forward to meeting you someday soon.

My dad, Al Spencer loved trains. I’m sure it all started with his dad’s job as a carpenter on the Great Northern Railway. Dad and his siblings rode the trains to school and such. It was one of the perks of his dad’s job. I know most kids like trains, but I think Dad maybe liked them more than most kids. He grew up around them.

On May 1, 1971, a very exciting event took place, especially for my dad. It was on that day that the Amtrak train was born. It was originally established by the Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act, which consolidated the United State’s existing 20 passenger railroads into one. Of course, most of us know that the Amtrak train has since had a long history…49 years to be exact. Back then the Amtrak train line served 43 states with a total of 21 routes. These days they not only handle traditional interstate passenger rail in 46 states, but they also operate high-speed trains along their busiest route, the Northeast Corridor from Washington DC, to Boston. With more than 500 destinations throughout a 21,000 mile system, Amtrak has grown to 33 routes across America. Nevertheless, the Amtrak train system was always focused on getting from Point A to Point B safely and swiftly, even in 1971.

From the time that first Amtrak rolled out of the station, my Dad was hooked. He knew he wanted to take a trip by way of that train. During the early years of the Amtrak, we heard a lot about it. It wasn’t going to be a trip that we went on as a family, but rather a special trip for Dad and Mom. That trip would finally happen in about 1991, when Mom and Dad took the Amtrak from San Diego to Seattle. My sister, Caryl Reed and her family lived there at the time, and they would spend time visiting with them after the train ride. My dad was so excited!! In fact, he was the epitome of “the kid in the candy shop.” I can see why he would be so excited. After all, he had waited twenty years for that trip. I suppose that prior to that time, he couldn’t think of any reason to take the trip, but when my sister moved to Bremerton, Washington, the time had come. Mom and Dad made many trips to Washington in those years, but that trip on the Amtrak Train really was the most exciting way for them to travel.

I can picture my dad now. Not how he looked. I have a picture of that. No…I can picture how he felt. He was that “kid in the candy store” again. I could picture him feeling like he was back in Superior, Wisconsin, hopping the train, even though he had a pass to ride the train.

When my dad, Allen Spencer and his brother, Bill Spencer were young boys going to school, their dad, Allen Luther Spencer worked for the Great Northern Railway. Because they lived a good distance from school, the boys and their sister, Ruth Wolfe had a dependent pass to ride the train to school. That pass didn’t stop the boys from “hopping” the train…in true Hobo fashion. Of course, we know that “hopping” a train is illegal now, but back then it wasn’t. My dad, Uncle Bill, and Aunt Ruth had passes however, so while they weren’t supposed to hop the train, it wouldn’t have been illegal anyway, because they had a pass…just not to hop the train.

During the Depression years, there were a lot of Hobos. The railroad was a quick way to get to jobs far away…and it wasn’t technically illegal…just frowned upon. President Roosevelt even created the 1933 Federal Transient Service, which built 600 shelters alongside the trains, to provide food, board, and medical care for working migrants…aka hobos, or at least part of them. As organized crime began using the railway for it’s own purposes, these services were shut down, and “hopping” a train became illegal. Nevertheless, illegal or not, there are actually tons of resources online to help hobos, and most hobos carry smart phones, and even laptops, so they can take advantage of the online forums and Facebook pages available to them. I looked at these online sites, and I found that they call themselves misfit travelers.

Over the years, hobos have developed their own code and language. I found that to be very interesting. Life on the streets, and especially train hopping can be a very dangerous kind of lifestyle. Sometimes, people living on the streets and traveling by hopping trains, need help…even if they find themselves in a position whereby they have to bend the law a little. Th codes and the language they developed help them maneuver this world in a little bit more safe way. I’m not condoning breaking the law, but these people are already there. They just took a wrong turn, and now they need help to make it, and hopefully make it back.

Over the years, I can recall that my dad, Allen Lewis Spencer had a number of hammers, of differing handles and sizes…like most men do, but for as long as I can remember, one hammer was always there. It wasn’t that this hammer was made of gold, or even looked fancy. It had a plain handle, but I suspect it is a hardwood, and not a simple pine. The handle is a medium toned wood, but it may have darkened with age and use. It also has a scorch mark about five inches long along one side, that happened when it was laid a little too close to a campfire. Dad rescued it just in the nick of time. He had to save it, you see. It wasn’t just any hammer…it was his dad’s hammer, and with his dad’s passing, the hammer was given to my dad.

Most wooden handled hammers don’t have a long handle life. That is probably the main reason that many, if not most hammers are made of metal these days. This wooden handled hammer is different, however. My grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer was a carpenter for the Great Northern Railway. His job was to build and repair seats, trim, walls, and floors…anything made of wood on the trains of the Great Northern Railway. He also made tables and chairs for his own family, and he did it all with that same hammer that my dad inherited upon his passing. Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfather, because he passed away before my parents were married. That leaves my sisters and me with only the stories we have heard from family and my Uncle Bill Spencer’s family history. I do know that while my grandfather’s work might never have been in the caliber of my cousins Gene Fredrick, and his sons, Tim and Shawn, he did make some nice things. What impresses me the most is that any work needing a hammer was done by the same hammer that my dad inherited, and that even after all the use my dad has give the hammer, it is still in amazing shape. Things were just made well in those days.

My dad took great care of that hammer, because it was as much a treasure to him as it is to me. It is so much more than just a hammer, it was my dad’s hammer, and his dad’s hammer. The handle still has the oil from Dad’s hand on it, making that spot darker than the rest of the handle, and I can tell you, that I will not be using the hammer, nor will I clean off that oil, or sand off the scorch mark, or the one little sliver of wood that was torn off of the handle at some point. You see, I think the hammer is just perfect the way it is, and I plan to display it with no changes to it at all, because it was my dad’s hammer, and to me…that makes it priceless.

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